In spite of a rising number of violent attacks targeting people from the Northeast, a deeply prejudiced society reinforces divisive lines and gets in the way of justice

Souzeina S Mushtaq Delhi 

In April 2009, a six-year-old girl had gone to the roof of the house to dry clothes. When she did not return, her mother went up to the roof looking for her, but could not find her. Nearly 45 minutes after she went missing, the child’s body was found in a water tank on the roof of another building.

The six-year-old infant, belonging to a Naga family in the Northeast, was raped and murdered and thrown inside a water tank in Mahipalpur. As she was taken out of the mortuary on a stretcher in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), her mother walked alongside, struggling with tears. The girl’s father, a businessman, who had been out of town, had also reached the hospital. Numb, he stood there, with the  wailing mother, as their daughter’s body was put in the van. Once inside, the doors closed, he held what was left of his girl.

Five years after this incident, as justice continued to prove elusive, a 21-year-old northeastern boy was thrashed to death in the capital.

On January 29, Nido Taniam, a student in Jalandhar, had visited the city to meet his friend. As they passed through the crowded streets of Lajpat Nagar, they stopped by a shop to ask for directions. The shopkeeper, looking at Taniam’s streaked hair, teased him and apparently made racist remarks. An altercation ensued in which an infuriated Taniam broke a glass counter in the shop. As the shopkeeper’s henchmen beat up Taniam, the police were called; they took Taniam to the police station and asked him to pay Rs 10,000 to the shopkeeper. He paid Rs 7,000, after which he was dropped back at the shop. His friends allege he was beaten up again.

When he threw up after drinking milk later in the evening, Nido complained of severe chest pain. Next day,  his friend was unable to wake him up in the afternoon. Nido was taken to AIIMS where doctors said he must have died in his sleep.

“When will the Government of India wake up? One should not awaken at the cost of somebody’s life. One life is precious,” says Dr Alana Golmei, an activist and founder member of the Burma Centre in Delhi, who also runs the North East Support Centre and Helpline (NESCH). “Before the post mortem report, they would have said he died of drug overdose. This is not any surprise to us. When Richard Loitam was beaten brutally, they said he died of drug overdose. They come up with these things without any investigation.”

Loitam, 19, a Manipuri student in his second semester at Acharya NRV School of Architecture, Bengaluru was found dead on his hostel bed in April 2012. The post mortem had suggested physical assault. Richard’s family and friends had alleged that he had been beaten to death. A case of murder under Section 174(c) under the CrPc (unnatural death) was registered. But the college authorities had tried to cast him as a drug addict.

Five days before Nido breathed his last, on January 24, local boys harassed two Northeastern girls. They were “beaten…their mobile phones taken…their wallets snatched. Some northeast boys came to help them. They stayed at the police station from 10:30 pm till 6 am just to file an FIR,” says Dr Golmei. 

Facing Alienation and Racism

Northeast India, the eastern most part of the country, is diverse with 272 tribes, and comprises the contiguous Seven Sister States—Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura, and Sikkim. People in the region, which is squeezed between Nepal and Bangladesh, bordering Burma, allege mainland India has never embraced them fully. People migrate to mainland India to get education and jobs as this concentrated belt is mostly  undeveloped.

In his book, A Call to Honour, Jaswant Singh mentions a letter written by Sardar Vallabhai Patel to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on November 7, 1950.

“Let us also consider the political conditions of this potentially troublesome frontier. Our northern and northeastern approaches consist of Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, Darjeeling and the tribal areas in Assam. From the point of view of communication, there are weak spots. Continuous defensive lines do not exist. There is an almost unlimited scope for infiltration. Police protection is limited to a very small number of passes. There, too, our outposts do not seem to be fully manned. The contact of these areas with us is by no means close and intimate. The people inhabiting these portions have no established loyalty or devotion to India. Even Darjeeling and Kalimpong areas are not free from pro-Mongoloid prejudices. During the last three years, we have not been able to make any appreciable approaches to the Nagas and other hill tribes in Assam. European missionaries and other visitors had been in touch with them, but their influence was in no way friendly to India or Indians.”

“Alienation has always been there. They have not understood this region and its dynamics. They are not interested in developing the region, and have stereotyped us as full of insurgents. They use this to justify their actions. We are tired of these justifications,” says Dr Golmei.

“Let me give you an example,” she says, “We have many freedom fighters from northeast. Rani Gaidinliu is one of them. We call her Rani Ma. If Rani of Jhansi and Laxmi Bai are known to everybody, why not Rani Gaidinliu? You go to any National Museum, you will not find information on any freedom fighter from the northeast. It is high time India told its own people and those from outside that we are a diverse country, and we have Mongolian races as a part of this country.”

In June 2005, Dara Sena Vidyarthi Parishad, a rightwing organization, decided to hold a meeting “against the vulgarity spread by Christian girls from the northeast in Delhi” at Kranti Chowk, Delhi University.

“As a part of the bigger conspiracy, some Christian girls belonging to the terrorist organizations of the northeast region roamed around naked and drunk, late at night, on the streets of Delhi. This is basically done to trap men and then falsely accuse them of rape in order to malign the image of Delhi and Delhi University. The whole game plan is to establish an independent Christian state in the northeastern Christian-dominated regions by indulging in a massacre of the entire north Indian Hindu population living there...” the issued statement said.

Deliberate and subconscious racism is deep-rooted in mainland Indian society. Over the years it has been institutionalized. Now, as the Central Government tries to gauge the seriousness of this issue, people from the northeast say there is at least the need to acknowledge that this is racism.

“Yes, racial discrimination exists. Let us accept that there is racism in this country but let us also collectively address the issue,” says Dr Golmei.

Famous Turkish author and columnist Elif Shafak, in one of her talks, ‘Politics of Fiction’ said, “We all live in some kind of a social and cultural circle. But if we have no connection whatsoever with the worlds beyond the one we take for granted, then we too run the risk of drying up inside. Our imagination might shrink; our hearts might dwindle, and our humanness might wither if we stay for too long inside our cultural cocoons. We tend to form clusters based on similarity, and then we produce stereotypes about other clusters of people.”

“There is racism in this country, and no justification can deny that. Till people think I am a foreigner, I am safe. The moment they realize I am an Indian, things start changing,” says Zuchamo Yanthan, Assistant Professor, Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU). “People have lost trust and confidence in the police. India is desperately in need of an anti-racism law. Such incidents (like the Nido Taniam case) are shaming the idea of secular India,” he says.

Phurpa, a 22-year-old boy from northeast says, sadly enough, he has now begun to internalize racism. “Your racism and stereotyping reduce me to an object. We feel inferior,” he says. Phurpa, who is doing his Masters in International Relations at JNU, adds that he faces racism very very often. “I have been living in Delhi for two years now, facing racism every day. People call us Chinki, which means ‘a small opening’, and it is a direct reference to our eyes. They think it is a casual pass or a Freudian slip. But it is not. It is textbook racism.” 

Is Enough Being Done?

On February 15, an all-religion prayer meeting was held at Jantar Mantar mourning the death of Nido, demanding strict punishment to draft the culprits and urging the government for an anti-racism law.

The Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh, Nabam Tuki, who was also present in the meeting, said Nido Taniam’s death was an unfortunate incident. “It is really sad that this unfortunate incident happened in the heart of Delhi. We condemn discrimination like this. There is a need for people to come together and start a movement against it.”

Thomas Taba, President, Arunachal Pradesh Students Union (APSU) said the incident is a blot on democracy. “No humanity is left inside people. They say Delhites are dilwale, but there is no heart inside people. We are not treated as human beings,” he said.

While the issue was highlighted in the capital, with Delhi’s former government trying to ensure that the “culprits get punished and school curriculums teach kids about northeast culture,” a 10-member committee was also formed to look after the issues of the northeast people. The committee, which was built along the lines of the recommendations of the Justice Verma Committee report and constituted by the Ministry of Home Affairs, has Nido Taniam’s mother as one of its members. The committee report will be out after two months. The police have also started a helpline for northeastern people; and the phone number is 1093.

As people lit candles, paying tribute to Nido and others who had been victims of racist attacks, a cousin of Reingamphi Awungshi—a young girl who was found in a pool of blood with injuries to her face and body in 2013, also lit one. There was grief, but there was also a glimmer of hope in his eyes. Right now, that’s all he has left.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MARCH 2014